Frederik Pohl
Gateway Cover

A Gateway Worth Taking


Gateway won the Nebula and the Hugo in 1977 and 78 respectively, meaning it was deemed an important book both by authors/critics and fans, which is nothing to sneeze at.  It is the first installment of a trilogy of books called the “Heechee Trilogy” after the mysterious aliens whose abandoned ships and technology enable man to travel to distant stars (although the rest of the books may be out of print).  While the book concluded pretty fast (albeit skillfully so), it certainly wasn’t one of those bastard cliffhangers meant to rile you up for a sequel.  Gateway definitely stands on its own.

Here’s the setup: A couple of centuries into the future, Earth short on resources to keep the hungry, teeming masses fed and thriving.  If you can’t pay the exorbitant fees to live under the domed cities with their environmental controls, then you’re down in the food mines squeezing the last bits of the planet’s oil from the rock itself and growing food off the remaining shale.  It’s a dystopia where corporations control it all and there is very little middle ground between the filthy rich and the stinking poor who break their backs just to survive.  During the colonization of Venus (this was written before we knew just how bad of an idea it would be to try to live on Venus) some ancient ruins left by the mysterious beings who came to be called the “Heechee” are discovered, and one colonist is inadvertently transported to an asteroid hovering above the plane of the ecliptic filled with mysterious, advanced technology and launch platforms for interstellar ships.

Access to distant planets, abundant resources, and advanced technology; sounds like just the leg-up mankind needs at this point history, right?  Well, here’s the rub: we’re not quite sure how it all works!  One strength of this book is that it treats the alien as really alien.  Despite tons of study, much of the Heechee tech is still a mystery, particularly the ships, which are part of some ancient network of Heechee worlds, colonies, and points of interest.  Through a frequently-lethal process of trail and error people have learned how to make the Heechee ships go, but they will only travel to predetermined destinations, and since the Heechee language and math system hasn’t been cracked yet there is no way to tell where these destinations are until you get there.  You could arrive at a Heechee colony and discover more useful tech or artifacts, or you could fly right into a supernova.  The first guy to try one of the ships came back half-starved since he had no idea how long the trip would take and didn’t have enough rations (and he was one of the luck ones).  Ships often return (as they are pre-programmed to), but more than a few come back with corpses instead of living crew.

These odds would dampen any spirit of adventure, so how does the Corporation that runs the asteroid, called “Gateway,” get people to volunteer for these chancy missions?  Answer: with fabulous cash prizes!  Prospectors can earn money based on what they find on any given mission.   People can earn bonuses for lots of things ranging from big scores from discovering Heechee artifacts, to discovering colonizable or exploitable planets, to just trying new things and finding out something of interest to science.  Of course, the big scores are few and far between, and a considerable number of people come back bust or dead, but for people like our protagonist, Robinette Broadhead, the chance of dying while trying to strike it big seems better than a certain life of toil in the mines.  Well, it seems better at first anyway.

Our protagonist, Robinette Broadhead (or Rob, or Bob, or Robby, etc.; he has some issues with his name) was a miner who won the lottery and used almost all of his money to finance a trip to Gateway to try and strike it really rich (apparently winning the lottery in this future means you still have to work for a living).  It’s not easy, though, since Bob finds out just how much of a coward he is when he continues to stall the decision to go on a mission, facing the constant pressure to do something to pay for his share of the air he’s breathing and the space he’s taking up on the asteroid.  Gateway is an interesting novel of space exploration that really focuses on the perils and the human price of trying to explore the cosmos.  It’s also an interesting psychological study of the protagonist.  While it shows its age in a few sections and drags a bit, overall it’s a very solid and enjoyable read.

Fear, Freud, and the Great Unknown: What Gateway Does Right

The story is told in the first person, and the way I’ve described it above might make the book sound like it’s just your average adventure and exploration story, but Gateway is anything but.  The story opens some years after Bob’s exploits on Gateway, after he beat the odds, struck it rich, and has funds and time to do pretty much whatever the hell he wants.  He jets around the world, lives comfortably in one of the domed cities, has full medical coverage (which can extend the human life expectancy by 40-50 years), and is never without a few women on his arm.  Bob isn’t happy, though.  In fact, he’s experiencing deep psychological turmoil that leads to his visiting a cybernetic therapist he dubs “Sigfrid von Shrink.”  The story of Bob’s time on Gateway takes the form of flashbacks and reminiscences he is having during his sessions with Sigfrid.

At first I thought this frame was just odd and massively spoilerific, but in the end it works because while you know Bob strikes it rich, you also know that he’s come back a damaged person and you want to know just how bad things got and what made him this way, which makes it a nice change.  Here we see Pohl working with a genre that is often fairly predictable, yet he uses this framing device to sidestep much of the inherent cliche and boorishness.  Most adventure movies and books today, for example, have the predictable plot structure where, no matter how bad things get, you know the hero will succeed in some fashion.  Here, the emotional stakes are much higher because while I knew Bob “succeeded”, I was left in great anticipation as to just how bad things got for him.  Pohl demonstrates his keenness with characterization as well as plot structure in Gateway.  A good deal of Bob’s inner troubles circle around his lover, Klara.  She is definitely not your average heroine and their relationship is definitely not a healthy one.  The intense and often destructive love affair between the two is a nice change from the typical, dry love story that’s crammed into everything these days, and it’s built around a deep understanding of who these two characters are, why they care for each other, and why they can’t stand each other.  In fact, we learn a lot about both of them through how they deal with each other.

And then there’s Sigrid.  Sigfrid is a cybernetic Freudian analyst, and so Bob’s sessions follow some very Freudian trajectories phallus, like when he analyzes Bob’s “Freudian slips.” After listening to the review of the book on The Science Fiction Book Review Podcast, however, I was prompted to think of these as a parody of psychoanalysis.  Bob is very aware of many of the ways Oedipus…I mean Sigfrid is analyzing him, which makes him feel patronized and irritated, and even mocks the method or tries to subvert it wherever he can, so the book is clearly demonstrating an awareness of the problems with psychoanalysis and not positing it as a cure-all, although it does lead to some harrowing dialogue towards the end.  Sigfried is almost the closest thing the book has to an actual antagonist, as Bob resists his therapy (his completely voluntary therapy).  The very last line of the book made me thing much more highly of the character of Sigfried, who appears as either a disembodied voice or just a speaker attached to a prop most of the time.

The science and technology of the book is dated in a few areas–people listen to audio tapes, still think Venus is colonizable in some form (although it is the perfect place to go for that niche demographic that wants to have their bodies crushed, lungs melt, and skin catch fire all at once), and don’t seem to be aware of the long-term negative effects living in Gateway’s microgravity is bound to have on the human body (namely bone and muscle loss).  But the fact that much of the technology in the book is of mysterious Heechee make keeps it from being too dated.  We, as readers, are stuck in the same process of figuring out how the Heechee ships work that Bob is, so we learn the parameters of the technology along with the protagonist, which is fun.  Again, Pohl treats the alien as alien, so the characters in the book have no idea how much of the technology left by the Heechee really works, how to fix it, or what its purpose is.  Their attempts to use the technology often amount to fumbling in the dark, which is probably how it would actually happen.  There are no magic translators or ways to hack into the Heechee computers (which don’t appear to function on base 10 math) with  our own computers a la Independence Day.  This makes the treatment of alien things and technologies in Gateway a refreshing change from, say, TV SF, where alien tech is just a step or two removed from our own and made by humanoids with bumpy foreheads.  The humans in Pohl’s book haven’t even been able to put together what a Heechee even looks like!

Between Bob’s psychological pathology and the mysteries left by the Heechee, Gateway is a novel that captures the uncertainty, the excitement, and the danger of space travel without having to delve into hard science much.  It’s also a pretty compelling example of world building, since even though we are limited to Bob’s perspective we really understand by just how dire things are on Earth why people would want to roll the dice on a Heechee ship and risk death in the pursuit of fortune and glory.  The world and its perils as well as its rewards feel well realized, and the framing device of Bob’s therapy sections led to a pretty intense revelation in the last few pages.  Also, it’s very rare that a last line of a book makes me reconsider the entire thing without seeming heavy handed or cliched.

A Gateway to Puttering  About: Where Gateway Could Have Been Better

Bob Broadhead gets on my nerves.  Sure, he’s a nice change from your typical white male protagonist–lantern-jawed, filled with hope, and living by a moral code that has the “Approved by Superman” stamp on it.  Bob may be a parody of astronauts from the early days of NASA, since Bob really does not have “The Right Stuff” to paraphrase Tom Wolfe.  But he’s also a douchebag.  That is literally the best word I have to describe him.  He can be very callous and even downright mean at times, but what characterizes him most is his fear.  First, it’s his fear of what might happen to him in a Heechee ship, and later, back on Earth, it’s his fear of confronting his own pain.  While that’s all quite understandable and well explained, it made the story drag in places and I ended up disliking Bob for it.  He’s like that friend who you know has a lot of bad shit in his/her past to deal with but you just don’t want to be around when he/she is dealing with it.  We spend more time on Gateway than we do out in the ‘verse due to Bob’s fear, and I found myself wishing I were on Gateway so I could conk him on the head and Shanghai him into the nearest outbound ship just to get the story moving a bit quicker.  His puttering got on my nerves after a while, and that wasn’t the only thing.   The prodigious amount of sex that is alluded to in the book  might be Bob trying to compensate for his inadequacies (danke, herr doktor), but even if his casual approach to sex and the way he treats women is just one more thing that shows he’s a flawed protagonist (which can be a nice change from your typical white-bread hero type), after a while it was just more proof of his docuhebaggery to me.

It’s disconcerting when you realize that the viewpoint character is  someone you’ve gotten tired of.   A few of his thoughts and experiences rang frighteningly true for me and made me sympathize with him.  His intensely close love/hate relationship with Klara bears resemblance to that kind of destructive relationship most people have been in at some point (myself included, though not to the same degree).  You know, the one during (or after) which all those whine, angst-driven love songs on the radio started to make sense?.  Also, during one of Bob’s therapy sessions with Sigfried, he said something that really hit me close to home.

“Why do you want to feel that everything that goes wrong is your responsibility?”

“Oh, shit, Sigfrid,” I say in disgust, “your circuits are whacko again. That’s not the way it is at all. It’s more — well, here’s the thing. When I sit down to the feast of life, Sigfrid, I’m so busy planning on how to pick up the check, and wondering what the other people will think of me for paying it, and wondering if I have enough money in my pocket to pay the bill, that I don’t get around to eating.”

I’m the same way in many instances (trying to get better, though), worrying too much instead of enjoying what’s going on, but even though there were aspects of Bob’s life and personality that I deeply sympathized with, I still didn’t like him as a person.  He didn’t have any significantly redeeming qualities.  You don’t have to like a character, but it makes engaging the story so much easier if you can at least stand him.  I listened to this as an unabridged audiobook narrated by Oliver Wynam, and it may have been the lulling and predictable patterns of his narrative voice that disaffected me from Bob.  Wynam is a capable narrator, but I think the way his narration got old and felt bland after a while had something to do with my dislike of Bob.

The climax and denouement went by shockingly fast compared to the long, draggy segments of Bob puttering around on Gateway while he gathers up the courage to shit of get off the pot.  I reflexively checked my MP3 Player, certain that I had accidentally skipped a chapter, but no.   While he did it quickly, Pohl did skillfully wrap up the story, leaving it open for future books but tying things up enough that it still feels satisfying as a stand-alone.  Still, I would have liked some more details about what happened in the end.

Coming Back into Dock: Concluding Thoughts

The second novel of the series is entitled Beyond the Blue Event Horizon.  Will I read it?  I’m on the fence, since I’m not sure how much more time I want to spend with Bob Broadhead, but I am very interested in this world Pohl has made.  Mankind desperately needs what Gateway can make possible for them, but their lack of understanding of the tehcnology or of the nature of the Heechee is bound to blow up in their faces at some point, and I’m more interested in that than I am in Bob Broadhead.  He’s a deep character, and Pohl characterizes him well.  I just didn’t like him much, and am not sure if I want to spend more time with him unless he shapes up a bit.  Having a flawed, angsty protagonist like him is a nice change from the vanilla hero character we have in other space adventure stories, but it’s hard to get excited about what’s going to happen next to a character when you really get tired of him as a person.

Still, I’m wiling to admit that this was just my reaction to Bob and not to fault Pohl too much here.  Overall, Gateway is engaging and well written and is a nice change from typical space exploration stories of the time.  It still stands up as an important and accessible piece of SF’s past and, given that it is still in print via Gollancz’s SF Masterworks series, I imagine it will be a continuing part of SF’s future as well.  I would recommend this to non-science fiction readers.  While it doesn’t show us much of the cosmos beyond the station, the story explores the human side of space exploration pretty well: the fear, uncertainty, and constant peril that explorers have to contend with every moment of every day, and it does so with very real, very human characters.